"Entering high orbit around Anvelt," Sumire's voice came across the ship's com as Riana made her way to the Argo's CIC followed by Darius, "we're receiving a hail from the ARS Revanche."
"She's here already," Riana raised her eyebrows and turned to Darius.
"I imagine she's been placating Lord Karosas for some time now," the XO offered, "our... diversions have probably not been well-received."
"That's why we left Lord Madeira," Riana countered, "I hope she hasn't had to babysit him all this time."
"He hates Lord Madeira," Darius reminded her, "but I imagine they've both had their hands full." They stepped through the door leading into the ship's CIC and while Darius moved over to the Holotable, Riana stepped over to the com.
"Su, we're in the CIC," she used a channel directly to the Argo's bridge, "should we meet you in the Leopard?"
"Negative," she replied, "High Lady Arano and Lord Madeira are already en route to us. It seems we're on a bit of a timetable."
Riana sighed. "How tight?"
"The dropship Lord Karosas mentioned apparently made berth on the surface approximately an hour ago," the pilot explained, "but this is just a refueling stop. They anticipate the entire process to be complete in less than an hour so if you want to go ahead and select your lance I'll get with Yang and start getting them loaded."
"Damn, that's close," she snarled, "any advice from her on what to expect?"
"Negative, Commander," Sumire said," but the target is a Union-class dropship and this is a military refueling depot. I would recommend a long range heavy lance."
Riana leaned against the wall with her forearm for a moment, hanging her head, and then she pressed the intercom again, "Load my Jager, the Hunch, the Cent, and Glitch's new Dragon. I'm on my way to the auxiliary docking collar to receive Lady Arano."
"了解," Sumire responded as Riana closed the channel and turned to leave.
"Darius, call down to the lounge and have Todd, Leonard, and Jess suit up for deployment then meet us here... double time."
"You got it," the XO nodded as the display on the Holotable flickered to life, depicting the moon and the Argo's position in high orbit.
Riana dashed off at a trot, heading past the Mech Bay. 'I bet she'll be surprised to see it,' she thought, 'now that Dr. Murad has it all fixed up!' She wound her way through the Argo's hallways, her mind lingering on Kamea. Smithon had been such a rush she really didn't have any time to talk to her and Lord Karosas' attitude had put a damper on everything. She was certain that the five weeks she had Queen Kamea's Revenge repairing, refitting, and scrambling for low-intensity contracts had been a strain on that relationship so she hoped that Lady Arano was in good spirits. 'It couldn't be helped,' she reasoned in her mind, 'deploying in the state we were in would have been immediate failure.' At least that's what she would say if it came up. She had just entered the docking compartment when the Argo jerked from impact. Riana's eyes widened as her hands went out to the walls to steady herself. "Coming in a little hot, aren't you?" she asked aloud as the noise of the docking clamps reverberated through the ship.
"Commander," Sumire's voice came over the com, "the Lady and her entourage have just arrived."
"No shit," Riana mumbled to herself as she entered the room at the end of the compartment where the airlock was. Going to a panel on the wall she engaged the seal and input the manual clearance for the door, pressing the com before she took a step back. "I'm in place, Su. You can give them the go..."
Before she could finish her sentence the actuators on the door rotated and the airlock door began to swing open, "...ahead," Riana's voice trailed as she released the com button and skipped to the left to center herself in the room, coming to parade rest as High Lady Arano and Lord Madeira appeared on the other side. She was still dressed casually in a tank top and jacket; her face and chest spattered with hydraulic fluid from where she had been in the bay overseeing the final adjustments on Glitch's new Heavy-Class DRG-1N. At her insistence Yang's crew had armed it with a PPC and a sizable LRM 20 array of rockets. They'd had to drastically reduce armor on the Mech's right side to afford for the correct tonnage and the stabilizers had been giving them trouble. Since it was all her idea Yang had challenged her to figure out how to calibrate the stabilizers so that was exactly what she had been doing... right up until their arrival when Darius had come to get her. "My lady," she began with a short bow, self-conscious about her appearance, "welcome aboard..."
"Forgive me, Riana," Kamea began in a serious tone as she strode forward with a purpose, "but we've little time for pleasantries. Your target is on the ground and we've got to get you there as quickly as possible."
"Understood," she nodded, turning to lead the way, "as always, Revenge is yours, My Lady."
"Today you are Lord Karosas'," she corrected her, "and you are very late." The comment and tone were frosty enough to silence Riana as she led them quickly back to the CIC. As they moved swiftly through the Argo Jester appeared, emerging from the kitchen with a bagel and a steaming cup of coffee but an icy glare from Riana saw him quickly retreat the way he came. They swept into the CIC just behind Dr. Murad. She scooted out of the way, surprised by their rapid approach. Darius was still there awaiting them.
"Yang and Sumire are on their way," the XO offered, "the MechTechs are loading the Leopard as we speak and the Mechwarriors you selected should be here shortly."
"My gratitude for your expediency," Lady Arano nodded as she and Lord Madeira approached the Holotable, "Lord Karosas challenged my authority, and he was right to do so," her voice was filled with shame, a remnant from her flight and exile, "his daughter died in my name. We're going to do what we can to earn his help and support. That means destroying theNewgrange, a smuggling ship that has been running weapons to the Directorate."
"Wait a minute," Darius interrupted her, "Newgrange? That sounds familiar."
"I'll explain in a moment," the Lady said as Sumire rushed into the room, bowing in apology. Yang followed behind a few moments later.
"The rest of the lance is on the way," Yang spoke to Riana as he arrived, "and my guys should have you loaded in twenty minutes, tops. I've promised them a round of Triple F burgers and a case of Timbiqui Dark the moment we run across it."
"That's fine," she cut her eyes at him, "you can spend your pay however you like." He narrowed his eyes in response and pursed his lips but said nothing more. "My Lady," she addressed Kamea directly, "it isn't necessary to wait for the lance. I can brief them on the way down."
"I can brief them myself," Kamea looked up at her and their eyes locked, briefly. Riana looked away, subconsciously. "I'll be your voice on the com for this drop, Commander. I'll be running this Op from your CIC. In fact, if I had my Kintaro aboard the Revanche I would go with you," she allowed a small smile to escape before she continued, "but I do not, so let's get this done. As you've heard House Karosas has suffered greatly at the hands of the Directorate. We can't change that, but we can show Lord Karosas that we're his allies and that our word can be trusted." She looked over at Dr. Farad, standing to her right, "We need his help with our data archive, yes, but that isn't why I agreed to this mission; if we are to prevail against the Directorate I must unite the Founding Houses under the Restoration's banner," she looked up as Glitch darted in the room, taking a quiet corner spot behind Riana, with Vamp and Death Krusade hovering in the doorway, "Without their support we will have no way to replace our losses."
"Understood, Lady Arano," Darius spoke for the group, "Let's get into the specifics about this job he's given us; I seem to remember something about a dropship?"
"She's called the Newgrange," she continued, moving around the Holotable and letting her fingers trace its edge, "She's a transport vessel, ostensibly civilian, named for an old line of Yardships,"
"I knew I'd heard that name before," Darius let his fingers touch his chin, "the Star League's biggest mobile repair and refit support ships. Two million tons and over two kilometers long."
"Well, this one is a standard thirty-six hundred ton Union-class dropship," Lord Madeira corrected, "it is only named in honor of the old Yardships."
"The Newgrange has been certified for commercial flight in the Directorate, the Capellan Confederation, and the Taurian Concordat," Kamea looked around the room at everyone in attendance, "In all other ways she's completely unremarkable... at least that's what her official paperwork says."
"I take it Lord Karosas disagrees with that official paperwork?" Hysteria folded her arms, covering her stained tank top. She was still insecure about her appearance.
"That's right," she nodded, "he claims that the Newgrange is running weapons into the Aurigan Reach to supply the Directorate's war effort. Her crew has been using an old commercial port on Anvelt to fuel up between trips."
"Wait," Sumire raised her hand, "I thought your people said this was a military refueling depot," she looked over at Riana for confirmation, "I'm pretty sure you said..."
"It is now," Lord Madeira answered, "as Lady Arano was saying it is an old commercial port. Recent scans, taken today, show it defended by a light lance with multiple turrets on site and a military sub-station just a few klicks away," he pushed his glasses up on the bridge of his nose, "once hostilities start they can have reinforcements on site in a matter of minutes."
"Pretty well protected for a commercial port," Death Krusade snorted derisively.
"Ships like this one could help to explain the Directorate's unexpected strength of arms," Kamea continued, "It is in our interest to destroy it. According to the intel we've been given the Newgrange is carrying more armor than any Union-class dropship has a right to. Attacking her directly will be a waste of time."
"If is civilian zen why does it need all zis armor?" Vamp reasoned, looking at Kru for affirmation. The stocky Solaran nodded in agreement and folded his arms, "Zat alone is suspicious."
"It does back up Lord Karosas claim," Glitch offered, "but there's no way our lance can take out a Union-class with armor before it takes off."
"Thankfully, Lord Madeira has found us an alternative approach." Lady Arano concluded, turning to the Lord, “Alexander?”
"Thank you, my Lady," Lord Madeira stepped forward and pushed his glasses back into position, allowing his hands to come together in front of him as he spoke, "The Anvelt fueling station was designed for civilian use. It isn't a hardened target and its components cannot withstand a sustained attack. If we go in while the Newgrange is refueling and blow the station's primary fuel reservoir her armor won't count for much," a smile crept across both Vamp and Kru's faces as they bumped their fists together in camaraderie, "the resulting explosion will smash her like an egg."
"You're sure that Lord Karosas is telling the truth?" Riana asked in an uncharacteristically meek voice, "It would be a disaster if we took out a civilian dropship."
"A lot of innocent people can fit on a Union," Glitch added, wrapping her arms around herself from the thought.
"From my own study of the Newgrange and the situation on Anvelt, I am convinced that Lord Karosas is telling us the truth," Lord Madeira continued, "there is something deeply suspicious about this ship. She isn't the commercial transport she pretends to be."
"Vague assurances aren't enough, Lady Arano," the tone in Riana's voice signaled to her crew that something was really bothering her, "I need to know that there aren't any innocent people on that ship."
"There's almost always some collateral damage," Riana did not turn around as Death Krusade spoke, instead her face darkened and her gaze tilted slightly towards the floor, "I mean, youse can't make an omelette..."
"Not helping," Vamp put a hand on Kru's shoulder, detecting his Commander's deteriorating mood.
"I'm no more eager for unnecessary bloodshed than you are, Riana," Lady Arano interjected, her soft tone and gaze halting Hysteria's descent, "I hope you know me well enough to recognize that."
"Of course," her voice shifted to one of atonement, "I would never insinuate, it's just that..."
"If we can raise the Newgrange on the com I will offer her captain a chance to surrender," Kamea's posture straightened, as if often did when she made vows or pledges, "I'd rather take prisoners than fill graves..." she turned her head to the right and looked down, "the Reach has seen too much death already."
"Hang on a second, boss," Yang spoke, turning directly to face Riana, "If this job were as easy as blowing up a fuel tank then Karosas would've done it himself already." He cast a suspicious eye back at the High Lady and her lordly companion, "So what's the catch? I mean why send us after such an easy target? Something here smells dirty."
"A need for deniable assets?" Sumire reasoned, "Could it be that he's playing the Arano Restoration? Some sort of personal revenge?"
Kamea stepped forward, her posture ramrod straight. Her voice carried a hard edge. "Lord Karosas sent the last remnants of his personal guard after the Newgrange two weeks ago while you were recuperating. A lance of hardened Mechwarriors," she looked around the room, her cimmerian gaze challenging any to dispute her again, "they were summarily destroyed; a complete loss. There were no survivors." Yang and Sumire withered under her hard glare as she came to her conclusion.
"Sounds like an unusually heavy security detail for a smuggling operation," Riana mused, "you'd think if this is supposed to be such a secret that a surprise attack by a veteran lance would have had more success."
"Not to mention," Yang dared to speak again, his eyes resembling those of a scolded dog that was not sorry for stealing food, "he just made our job harder; they're going to be expecting another attack."
"I guess that's why they have a lance and turrets at a civilian depot," Sumire surmised, "can we be sure this is still a soft target?"
"If they plan to harden it," Lord Madeira spoke, "the crews are not on site yet. Reasonably they would have to send for one from Directorate space, which would be complicated by the Restoration's control of Smithon's system."
"That means the lance and turrets were in place before Lord Karosas' attack," Darius reasoned, leaning forward to look at Yang, "though I suppose it's possible there was more than a single lance when he attacked."
"It's bizarre, I agree," Kamea's tone put an end to the speculation, "but we only have Lord Karosas' word to go on and he didn't personally witness what happened."
"That'll have to do," Hysteria nodded in agreement, "what's the sitrep, my Lady?"
"We should approach this drop with an abundance of caution," she turned to the Holotable as Lord Madeira displayed the blueish-tinged image of the Union-class dropship parked at the refueling depot. The terrain looked sharp and jagged but there appeared to be a decent approach from the southeast. "Bring the strongest lance you can field and keep your eyes open while you're on the moon's surface," she turned and made eye contact with Riana, "and I'd recommend bringing a heat-efficient lance, if possible. Anvelt's atmosphere and climate will quickly overwhelm your heat sinks if you're not careful."
"Vat kind of terrain do ve look at?" Vamp asked from the back of the room.
"From the scans, Martian," Sumire referred to her datapad, "expect low visibility, obscured sunlight, frequent dust storms, and rough terrain."
"You heard her, people," Darius clapped his hands together, "nothing we haven't handled before," he met Hysteria's eyes and he could tell Dekker's death was on her mind; Anvelt's environment was very similar to Untran's, "Keep your eyes open for the Newgrange's security detail and be ready for the fight when it arrives. I'll be rooting for you from here."
"Chief, I need you to light a fire under the asses of your people," Riana said, beckoning him to rise, "if the Leopard isn't loaded yet then make it so," she pointed at him, "and make promises out of your own pocket!"
"Commander," Darius interjected, "I should mention that Lord Karosas is offering over two million for this job..."
"Burgers and beer for everyone," she corrected herself to Yang's delight; a smile splayed across his face as he rushed out of the room, "I wanna be on the ground in thirty minutes or less!" She turned and pointed to Sumire, "Spool up the Lep; the second we're on board I want to be underway," she spun as the pilot nodded and exited the CIC, "Vamp, Kru, Glitch get your shit and get in your pits. I'll be there shortly and I'd better be the last aboard," she turned to leave but stopped and looked over her shoulder, "if you'll excuse me, my Lady, I've still got to get dressed," she smiled warmly at her, "I'll be counting on you from up here." Kamea nodded as Riana rushed out of the room.
The Argo was suddenly awash with activity. As she raced past the Mech Bay she could see the Techs scrambling about; everyone busy as they moved the final Mech, the Dragon, to the elevator. The loading process was not without danger and rushing the movement of a 65-ton Battlemech was never casual, but she had no time to stop to admire their work. She slipped into Alpha Pod with its comfortable gravity and headed for her bunk, remembering all too late that she had sent her dropsuit for cleaning. Cursing she spun around and raced back to the laundry, at the head of the pod, and slid the door open. The laundromat was small and unstaffed at the moment. Neglecting to hit the lights she tore through the polywrapped items searching for hers, holding them up in turn to try and see in the dark. Finally finding it she ripped the wrapping open and grabbed her suit, rushing out the door and almost slamming headfirst into Lady Arano. "Ah!" she exclaimed, her back slamming against the door frame she dropped the suit on the floor in shock, "My Lady! You surprised me! What are you doing here?"
"I... wanted to see you," Lady Arano began softly, taking a step back and brushing her hair from her eyes, "before the drop."
"Me?" her heart rate quickened and her mind whirled, "What for?" She winced after she spoke the words; 'how foolish I sound,' she thought.
"This mission," Kamea began, "I want you to be careful. I know your lance ran into a lot of trouble on Smithon," she looked down as she spoke, "two of your team almost got killed... because of me."
"My Lady," subconsciously Riana began to reach out to her, but she stopped herself, "don't. It's not your fault. We're mercenaries, Mechwarriors! I mean it comes with the territory..."
"This incident with Lord Karosas," she continued, "I feel like I'm having you pay for my mistakes..."
"You didn't make a mistake," Riana said defiantly, "you did exactly what Sir Raju told you to do! What good would it have done Lord Karosas or anyone else if you'd been captured or killed on Coromodir?? You survived, to fight another day, and by doing so you gave Karosas and every other Founding House a chance... a chance they wouldn't have if you'd remained!"
"I mean, I keep asking these things of you and your team," she shook her head, "I know you're mercenaries now and I know it's your job and maybe I shouldn't feel this way because Lord Karosas is paying you and you do take other contracts besides mine but... this particular mission; he insisted it be you. Not the Restoration Army, which I would have gladly committed to this cause, but for some reason he wanted you to do it; to take down the Newgrange and..."
"My Lady..." Riana muttered under her breath as she spoke. Her eyes were fixed now on Kamea's lips as they formed her words, occasionally flitting up to her dark eyes or the scars that ran across the bridge of her nose. In a moment of impulsiveness Riana found herself moving forward. Going in, uninvited, for a kiss. Her eyes began to close as she neared her but, suddenly, Lady Arano pulled backwards.
"Commander Klaue!" she exclaimed, her eyes widening.
Riana shut her eyes tightly and froze. 'Goddammit,' she grimaced as she waited for Lady Arano to continue, fixed in shame as she mentally berated herself for misreading the signs.
"Riana," when she spoke Kamea's voice was gentle. Hysteria flinched as she felt Lady Arano place a hand on her shoulder. Slowly she opened her eyes, her eyebrows pinched together and her lips pursed in a blend of horror, humiliation, and remorse. "I am flattered," Kamea smiled, "truly I am. But I am also at war; not only for my throne and my birthright but also for my people," Riana's expression faded as she sank back into the wall, a hollow smile and a nod veiling the numbness she suddenly felt, "I cannot, in any good conscious, think about such matters until my uncle's Directorate has fallen." Her hand moved to Hysteria's chin, preventing her from lowering her gaze. "I hope you can understand."
"Forgive me," she murmured, dipping into a squat to retrieve her dropsuit, "I... should go. My lance is waiting and if we're going to catch the Newgrange we need to launch immediately."
"Yes, of course," Kamea nodded, "I'll.. head back to the CIC," she offered Hysteria another warm smile but the Commander found herself unable to respond, "I'll see you on the comms?"
"Yeah," Riana flashed a lop-sided grin as Lady Arano turned to leave, exiting the pod. Solemnly she headed back to her bunk, resisting the urge to throw herself in it, and changed.
(To be continued)